Politics over tolerance in Safe Schools debate
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Politics takes precedence in Safe Schools debate

At the beginning of March, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull justified his stance in seeking a review of the Safe Schools program, which is designed as an anti-bullying initiative, calling its future into question.

Co-authored by secondary school teacher Chris Bush, the initiative sought to create a resource for teachers and principals to help them combat homophobia and support LGBTI students as a means of promoting diversity in schools.

As Mr Bush recently wrote for The Guardian Australia, ‘All the existing resources were old and out of date and most told stories that were bleak’.

‘They needed an anti-bullying program – yes, an anti-bullying program – that stopped what they felt they were currently unable to do,’ he wrote.

National funding for the Safe Schools Coalition is delivered from the Department of Education, while the Victorian Government has funded the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria.

Since its inception, Safe Schools has developed its work based on empirical evidence, and draws direction from similar concepts that have been established elsewhere in the world, including the UK. The national initiative isn’t mandatory, yet nearly 500 schools around the country have joined the Safe Schools Coalition since it begun.

Earlier this year, the Federal Government announced it was conducting a review of the program, prompting several Coalition MPs, including ex-PM Tony Abbott, to call for all funding to be cut entirely.

As reported by The Conversation, research shows that at least ten per cent of young people are same-sex attracted, four per cent are transgender or gender diverse and at least 1.7 per cent can be described as ‘gender diverse’.

But Mr Abbott has described the Safe Schools initiative as “social engineering” and MP George Christensen claims it is “indoctrinating children” without reference to any evidence. These voices have been echoed by right-leaning media outlets such as The Australian, with headlines like: ‘Left falls into Queer extremists’ trap with Safe Schools program’.

The politicisation of Safe Schools has now prompted the Australian Christians party to hold a rally against the program, labelling it “taxpayer-funded sexual grooming” (just 20 of its members have publicly committed to attending the rally).

On balance, a well-designed, national initiative of tolerance has been subsumed by sectarian interests, led primarily by a (relatively small) fundamentalist Christian lobby.

However, the interests of a loud minority aren’t expected to sound the death knell for Safe Schools. As Mr Bush wrote, the program ‘makes a difference to the lives of many young people and will do so for many years to come’.

‘The overwhelming majority of Australians support the aims of the Safe School’s Coalition and want to see the program continue. If we don’t call out this hate for what it is, we fail to use the gift of our education, our enlightened thought, our respect, understanding and tolerance that’s the hallmark of an inclusive Australia.’